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Should we go back to the office?

What is important about the workplace? How can we make a place where we all love to work?


More productive at home


One of the largest studies done about working from home has shown that productivity can be increased while working from home. The 9-month experiment with a random selection of 1,000 employees in China revealed that working from home led to a 13 percent increase in performance plus a 50 percent drop in employee-quit rates.

This confirms my own experience. Not being in the office allowed me to decide how I need to function to make myself productive and feel good, and that’s not necessarily our typical 9 to 5. Going on walking meetings, working out at lunch or taking a 15 min break to meditate are some of the new habits I developed during this time and that have worked for me.

Interestingly however, when asked whether they wanted to keep working remotely or return to the office after 9 months, half of the original volunteers from this research requested to return to the office. The reason was mainly that they felt isolated and lonely at home.[1] In the long run, people prefer being in an office for the face to face relationships it offers. So the real threat with extended homeworking is not productivity, it is much more our mental health.

Less connected

A world without office also means more time to spend with the people I choose to spend it with. It makes the whole situation very comfortable as we are rediscovering our individual spheres, but in the long run, this might lead to dehumanizing the workplace.


An extreme case of what it could look like can be found in the working environment of Deliveroo bicycle couriers. An interesting sociology research shows how a lot of these workers start developing anxiety just hearing their apps notifications. The only interaction couriers have with their leadership is the access to their own stats. These stats don’t reflect the quality of their work but factors that are used by the algorithm to maximize profit: presence, late cancellations to reserved shifts and participation to peak hours (so during the night and weekends). While the algorithm evaluates their performance according to these criteria, it also dictates how much they will be able to work in the future. Therefore, apps notifications trigger anxiety as they remind them of the risk to be demoted to less shifts and the financial insecurity it represents. Interestingly, while most couriers initially started this job for the flexibility, they soon realized that their activity is more than ever driven by a cold algorithmic boss, removing any freedom to self-manage their time or even the option for family time during the weekend. In a world without an office, or even a manager to talk to, Deliveroo couriers tend to re-create a physical space for social connection with their colleagues, gathering together in front of the same restaurants and exchanging about their day.[2] In a world where we don’t go to the office anymore, the risk of becoming more individualistic, more task-focused and less attentive to people is real.


Both of these studies only reflect certain working situations, some teams require more team work than others to be effective, and our personal circumstances and motivations require different solutions. It is time to focus on the employee’s wellbeing more holistically – in terms of not only the physical, but the mental and emotional wellbeing as well.


What is the future workspace?


I am feeling nostalgic about all the offices I spent so much time in my life and thinking this time might be behind us. Offices were sometimes stressful, painful or insignificant, it is where I exchanged laughter and tears, about work but also about everything else happening in the rest of my life at the same time. I remember both the boring meetings and the animated brainstorming sessions, the weird colleagues and the long passionate lunches in France where we would speak about anything but work. Offices are where I met some of my best friends, and even the one I am spending my life with. After university, work has been my main social network.


Just like home, the workplace has a meaning not for what it is but mostly for what it represents. Behind the cool offices, the playing areas, the (more or less) nice canteens and the (best) office barista, we need to rethink how we engage employees. Here are some key elements that truly matter about the workplace:


1. Re-inventing the stories around our work without an office space to represent it. More than ever, employees need to know why they are working where they are working, and what they contribute to. What makes us human is our ability to collaborate with numerous strangers, because of our ability to invent fictional stories, spread them around and convince others to believe in them. When we are not going to the office anymore, our office culture and values are becoming less apparent. We need to spend time re-creating our culture.


2. Investing in managers: 70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager.[3] This is both a risk and an amazing opportunity. Just as a bad manager can ruin a good job, a great manager can make a good job even better. You can have the best strategy, but if you don’t have the right managers to navigate through change and constantly re-connect the dots and making clear how the team is contributing to the bigger picture, teams will disengage. We need great managers who:

· Put the right people in the right roles

· Create a culture of clear accountability

· Engage employees with a compelling vision

· Motivate every employee individually

· Coach and develop their people by focusing on their strengths

· Make decisions based on productivity, not politics

· Build trust and dialogue with their people about both work and life outside of work


3. Creating is space of social connection. Effective teams come with psychological safety. Although technology has changed, human nature hasn’t. Employees still have fundamental psychological needs that must be met to achieve high performance, and this comes with social connection. Meeting face-to-face helps creating that. It doesn’t have to be every day, potentially not even every week, in an office or elsewhere, but we need to spend qualitative time to build great teams.


I don’t want to go back to “normal”. I want to keep the focus time that I can create today, I want to keep my morning routine, I want to have face-to-face interaction that really matter, when I meet my team.


Today is a unique opportunity to shape our new workspace, make it a place where we feel safe and accepted for who we are, where we can learn and grow as individuals, where there is space for everything else that is important in our lives outside of our working time.

Our workplace is much more than an office, so let’s focus on what really matters: our people, our culture and what we are here to do together.


Jean-Christophe Peret (https://outofchoice.co) and Claire Lauzanne (https://www.clairelauzanne-coaching.com/)

[1] Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment” by Nicholas Bloom, James Liang, John Roberts, Zhichun Jenny Ying (Quarterly Journal of Economics (2015), 165–218, March 2015) [2] « La tête dans le guidon », Fabien Lemozy, La nouvelle revue du travail, 14 | May 2019, URL : http://journals.openedition.org/nrt/4673 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/nrt.4673 [3] Gallup, Tom Nolan, The No. 1 Employee Benefit That No One's Talking About

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